Impasse! Congress has overwhelmingly passed the “Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987.” The Act, which codifies the longstanding Fairness Doctrine, has been vetoed by President Reagan.
The Fairness Doctrine requires television and radio stations to cover controversial issues of public importance and to cover those issues fairly by airing conflicting views. It has given citizen groups across the country the right to challenge stations that have allegedly provided grossly one-sided or inadequate coverage of events, groups, or issues of public concern in the community.
These challenges have resulted in citizen-broadcaster agreements that have improved the quality of local programming.
Congress has wisely chosen to give the Fairness Doctrine the full force f law because the Courts have ruled it to be implied in the “public interest” standard for broadcasters in the 1934 Communications Act. Without the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters could ignore crucial issues or present only one side of important local debates. Broadcasters would no longer be public trustees with the duty to use the airwaves for the public good.
Fair presentation of issues is simply a modest condition for
the government’s gift of exclusive, free licenses of the public
airwaves to broadcasting corporations. Congress should override
the veto and continue to require fair airing of important issues.
Almost twenty years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment right of the public to the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources superior to the right of broadcasters as speakers.
Yet today both networks and local stations are cutting news budgets and public affairs programming. The Federal Communication Commission’s misplaced faith in undefined “market forces” and deregulatory policies closed to the public interest, have made the flow of information in this country dependent on the drive by a few companies to maximize profits. In such an atmosphere, codification of the Fairness Doctrine is urgently needed to reassert the public’s right to information presented over the publicly owned airwaves.
Congress must now consider further” action to redress the imbalance between broadcasters and the public: for 50 years the minimal obligations imposed on broadcasters have not been equal to the ever-increasing value, in terms of money and influence, that the public’s broadcast license makes possible.
To exercise their First Amendment right the American people deserve more than the Fairness Doctrine; they deserve access to the airwaves, which they own, and the ability to act as an organized community.
To organize and mobilize the audience, Congress could create the framework for a national membership institution of viewers and listeners — let us call this institution the Audience Network. Any citizen over 16 years of age who paid a minimum amount , say $10 a year , could be a member of the non-prof it Audience Network. The group wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a dime.
Through local and national chapters, Audience Network would be run democratically, with members electing a board of directors who in turn would establish appropriate studios with skilled producers and reporters.
The group’s primary access asset would be airtime granted by Congress; a prime time hour a day on each commercial radio and television station. During its time slot, the Audience Network could air a variety of cultural, political, entertainment, scientific or other programs that it produced or obtained.
It could also provide central production facilities and act as a time broker for other non-profit groups that wished to professionally produce and air programs.
Audience Network would also represent the interests of its members before the FCC, the courts, and Congress wherever broadcasting industry issues are being contested. With a fulltime staff, Audience Network could, for example, advocate broadcast reform measures or evaluate children’s programming on local stations.
The Audience Network, in short, could serve as a self‑funded, independent ongoing communications link for, by and between viewers and listeners. Returning a modest portion of the public’s airwaves back to the public will enable the audience-‑not the government or private business — to give itself what it wants and needs. The people’s electronic voice needs an Audience Network.